Amazon

Is Amazon inching toward a streaming music service?

Thursday, September 26, 2013 - 11:55am

Amazon caused a media ripple yesterday when it connected its previously independent Amazon Cloud Player with its MP3 Store. The Cloud Player is an online music locker where customers can store their owned tracks (whether purchased from Amazon or not), and play them from any device which can run an Amazon Cloud Player app (pretty much any device). People who prefer outright ownership of music, as opposed to the access model which motivates Spotify and Rhapsody, can get the benefits of mobility by maintaining their collections in the cloud, like celestial jukeboxes.

In mashing up the Cloud Player with the MP3 Store, Amazon joins buying, storing, and mobile playing in an agreeably seamless connection. That’s why Hypebot headlined the news: “Amazon Finally Gets Closer to iTunes” -- Apple’s download store is likewise integrated with its iCloud service.

But of course Apple owns the whole three-legged stool of downloading, cloud storage, and internet radio streaming, designed to cozy the user into an embryo of uninterrupted music monetization, at home and on the go. No less for Google, too, by the way, even though nobody’s talking about it during this period of obsessive Apple scrutiny.

Straddling the competitive fence which divides Apple and Google is one of Amazon’s cutting advantages. It has navigated mobile-OS politics by forking Android into a specialized operating system for Kindle Fire tablets, thereby remaining secular amid the tablet holy wars. Amazon apps are distributed to both iOS and Android phones and tablets. Amazon is everywhere, trading rabid fanboyism for the privilege of being despised by nobody.

From what better position to forge the missing link in the triplet chain of music merchandising? Last May, The Verge reported that Amazon was in talks with labels about a music subscription service. This is the ecosystem roadmap: sell the downloads first; provide universal cloud access second; lock in the user with unlimited listening third. If Amazon were to bundle a streaming platform into what is already a packed-with-value Amazon Prime membership, which now provides streaming movies and television, the media-loving consumer sector might undergo some kind of rapture and rise to the heavens.

If not, yesterday’s cloud/download maneuver will have been just another incremental product update. We’ll see.

Unanswered questions at Rhapsody

Friday, September 13, 2013 - 11:55am

Being a first-mover can be dangerous.

No music service is more aware of the perils of pioneering than Rhapsody, the subscription listening platform that has been operating since 2001. CEO Jon Irwin, in his RAIN Summit West 2013 keynote, remarked: “We’ve been around for over 11 years. Sometimes that’s a good thing; sometimes that’s a bad thing.”

Rhapsody’s market position seems to be an uneasy thing, at least, if you give credence to this week’s rumors of an executive shakeup underway. Nothing has been substantiated, but Rhapsody’s business realities, combined with whirlwind change in the internet listening landscape, make the rumors plausible.

If nothing else, putting a question mark over Jon Irwin’s bio reflects light on larger unanswered questions about Rhapsody’s service model and future.

Rhapsody was a farsighted startup in 2001. Launching with a small and esoteric music catalog, consisting entirely of classical recordings to start (largely provided by specialty label Naxos), the platform established major-label agreements within about six months. Along with early competitor eMusic, Rhapsody committed to the subscription path -- there is no free listening and no ads. (Google’s All Access service is going down that path, too.)

Many observers believed that Rhapsody’s access-as-ownership model was the future, implying as it did that ownership of a product unit (CD or track) would be rendered unimportant by an always-on celestial jukebox of a vast recorded catalog. That scenario is closer to playing out now, but it took a long time (in internet years) for it to manifest. The iTunes Music Store launched in 2003, giving labels a way of leveraging the album/track paradigm in the online realm, while coaxing consumers into the digital age with a store model they could relate to. iTunes revolutionized music buying by keeping it familiar.

The mobile internet changed consumer demand more radically than Apple’s iPod MP3 player could service with its hard drives of bought and stored songs. Alongside the sea change of mobile, new services introduced free listening, supported by advertising and usability restrictions that most people were (and are) willing to tolerate. While Rhapsody continued to supply a feels-free access to a long tail of music, Spotify and its ilk furnished actually-free listening, discovery, playlisting, and social sharing.

If that didn’t pressure Rhapsody’s steadfast subscription model enough, the big sluggers are now coming to bat -- the ecosystem giants Google, Microsoft, and Apple. These collossal tech/media brands engage in primary businesses (advertising, software, hardware) that can easily float loss-leading divisions that sell music. Apple’s music-specific ambitions are probably the most distinct, and certainly backed by a monumental history of shaping consumer habits, but all three companies (plus Amazon) own immense user bases whose casual exploration of built-in music services can take share from established indies like Rhapsody.

So, whether Jon Irwin remains Rhapsody’s leader or not, the unanswered questions remain the same: Can a subscription-only service provide compelling value against free-listening platforms? For that matter, can any streaming-music business hold its own against content costs?

Investor valuations can soar in certain cases, but nobody is turning a profit quarter after quarter. (Rhapsody’s most recent year-over-year quarter was down eight percent.)

The most visionary music service is rewarded for its far-sightedness by owning the longest track record of profit futility. Hundreds of thousands of dedicated users hope Rhapsody can remain buoyantly afloat in increasingly rough waters.

Webcaster Songza comes to Canada; available on Sonos devices now too

Thursday, August 9, 2012 - 1:20pm

The webcast service Songza, known for its "music concierge" interface that offers playlists based on the time of day and your likely activities, launched in Canada this week. The free service is now available to Canadians on the Web, Apple and Android mobile, plus home streaming device Sonos (see below).

Though the Internet is a global marketplace, many webcast services aren't available outside their home country due to the difficulty in negotiating licensing with copyright owners around the world.

Songza worked with Canada's music licensing company Re:Sound to secure the necessary licenses to stream to a Canadian audience (an audience, by the way, with a significantly high broadband and smartphone penetration, as well as the relative lack of other streaming options).

Sonos owners (that includes those in the U.S. as well) can now access Songza on their devices, and "Songza's music concierge goes a step further so that you can choose a playlist based on rooms in your home."

By the way, Sonos has also announced availability of Amazon's new Cloud Player music storage service on the device.

Spotify launches app for Kindle Fire, issues update to support upcoming iOS 6

Wednesday, August 8, 2012 - 1:30pm

Kindle FireOn-demand music service Spotify has launched an app for Amazon's Kindle Fire tablet. It includes the service's free customizable streaming radio service (RAIN coverage here), as well as 320kbs listening. Engadget has more coverage here.

Spotify has also issued an update for its iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad apps with support for iOS 6. That's Apple's upcoming new operating system for iOS devices. The update also includes bugfixes and lets iPad users "see more stations," reports CNet (here).

Amazon, Apple may accelerate smartphone and tablet adoption with new rumored devices

Friday, July 6, 2012 - 11:20am

Mobile devicesNew devices rumored to be coming soon from Amazon and Apple may aim to put smartphones and tablets in the hands of new consumers, like those who have so far stuck with "dumbphones." That means more people potentially accessing apps and streaming web radio.

Amazon is rumored to be building its own smartphone. Not so far-fetched, considering it already offers the Kindle Fire -- an Android tablet device (RAIN coverage here).

GigaOM predicts the goal of a smartphone from Amazon "would be to go after the 50% of people who don't have a smartphone." Indeed, "a survey earlier this year found that consumers were more interested in a phone from Amazon than they were in one from Facebook," points out All Things Digital (here). 

"If Amazon can give consumers a dirt cheap but very capable smartphone, it could attract a number of users at launch and set it up for better success as it puts out more capable phones down the road," comments GigaOM (here).

Meanwhile, a myriad of publications report that Apple will soon launch a smaller (7" screen), cheaper (around $200) iPad. Such a move would not only hurt competitors like Google -- which unveiled its own relatively small tablet recent, more here -- but also get more consumers using tablets.

iPad

"As you drop the price point and size, you are opening up consumers you weren't addressing before," said Brian White, an analyst with Topeka Capital Markets. "Having something you can hold in one hand seems to matter to some people and may matter in emerging markets," said Frank Gillett, a Forrester Research analyst.

In June, a study found that around a third of U.S. Internet users owned a tablet (more here). A recent Gartner survey found that 40% of mobile users listen to music on their devices (more here).

Tell Songza's new Music Concierge what you're doing, it picks the music for you

Monday, March 5, 2012 - 11:40am

Music playlist service Songza today launched a new service designed to deliver musical experiences based on when you're listening and what you're doing. Songza's new Music Concierge automatically notes day and time.Songza Tell it you're about to go jogging, for example, and it draws from its library of expert-designed playlists of songs for a radio-like experience suited to exercise.

Evolver.fm's Eliot Van Buskirk reviewed the Music Concierge today. He wrote (here):

To be fair, no music recommendation system is ever going to be exactly perfect. Songza succeeds, to an extent, in its attempt to cut through the millions of songs out there that any of us can now listen to without paying a cent in seconds on Spotify, YouTube, or elsewhere. The admittedly-thin proof: I am still listening to the station it recommended.

In 2010 indie music online retailer Amie Street's online business was sold to Amazon. The company itself remained independent and owns Songza.com.

 

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